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This past Friday I met a friend at The Mulberry Project. I haven’t been to Little Italy in a while. But the combined enticements of checking out a new speakeasy, drinking custom-crafted gin cocktails, and sampling from an inventive menu had me searching the place out.

And when I say “searching the place out” I really mean it. There’s no signage. No announcement, “hey, come in here!” (which is odd for Little Italy, as many waiters stand outside their restaurants and bars trying to encourage people to come inside). Finally, after skulking mysteriously outside what I thought was the location, I broke out the ol’ iPhone and Googled to see if any previous patrons left hints as to where/how to get inside. I found some basic but helpful instructions (“look for the green light”) and made my way toward the bar inside.

The Scene:
The underground lair is a long, narrow space with the bar on the right side and small tufted-couch booths on the left. The bar has bright red stools tucked under an inventive, peg-board style steel counter top behind which a pair of tall, lanky and ingenious tenders await my beverage requests.

The Grub/Bevvies:
Would anyone like to hazard a guess as to what I requested? Gin, of course. My first drink (pictured above) was a very light, fruity and slightly fizzy concoction. Waaaaay too easy to drink. By which I mean it was excellent. By the time my friend and my second drink arrived (a deeper drink featuring Bols Genever gin…something to sip, with a little infusion of orange peel) it was time for some food.

First up: Sweet Potato French Fries. Those of you who read this post are familiar with my affinity for sweet tater fries. Love ’em. So much I would eat them every day. Mulberry Project’s version were a balanced salty/sweet with a slight crispiness along the squared edges. Two added bonuses: delicately fried parsley leaves topped the squishier fries, and a pool of chipotle aioli was waiting in the wings for dipping purposes. We destroyed these fries.

Then we went straight for meat: with Steak Tartare and Lamb Bacon.

I happen to like eating globs of raw meat. And please don’t misunderstand, my use of the term “glob” is very positive. These fresh chunks of filet mignon were rolled around with shallots, capers and topped with a quail egg hat, resulting in a gooey, tangy and salty masterpiece. We even fought over the quail egg. A little.

So then we had some more gin (this one had ginger and some kind of floaty herb – it was my favorite drink of the evening).

And then we had the Lamb Bacon.

The thickly cut bacon was arranged into small square towers, like tiny slices of meat lasagna. In the middle, like the fountain at the Piazza Navona, was a refreshing pile of cucumber and caper topped with – can anyone guess? – a FRIED EGG!

I have already sung the praises of fried pickles (you should ALWAYS fry a pickle). I even made some of my own. Now I must move on to eggs. Lightly breaded, and still slightly soft in the center, this little gem was large enough to split (lucky for my friend). However, I would have had no problem eating the whole thing by myself.

The Bathroom:

Clean and tidy with black subway tiles and spacious mirrors, the bathroom was understated and modern. And accentuated by some very interesting art. Obviously the guy in the photo did NOT have the masterful gin drinks that I enjoyed. And does anyone have any thoughts on those polka-dotted pants? Because I may need some.

Take a stroll down Mulberry to find the Project. Walk toward the green light. And then get yourself some gin. And fries. And Lamb Bacon…

Oh yeah, and the chef’s nickname is “Kiwi”…

The Experience: Napoleon Dynamite – The Offbeat Success

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This week’s review is of A Voce Restaurant, on 41 Madison Avenue (they also have another location as well, at 10 Columbus Circle).  Elana and I are greeted and seated immediately, despite arriving about 20 minutes early for our reservation.  They are extremely welcoming.

The Scene –  The interior has a modern, trendy sharpness to it.  Abstract artistry, colored lights and contoured leather seating gives off a very Vegas like feel.  It’s a spacious, sprawling, single level space featuring angled furniture, walls and fixtures which perfectly mesh together like well working geometry experiment.

The Grub – A Voce starts us off with some fresh, Tuscan (no, or little, salt) style bread with a dipping dish of EVOO (that’s extra virgin olive oil).  Elana and I use this opportunity to scan the wide ranging menu.  We first split an order of the Cassoncini con Prosciutto Di Parma.  The Cossoncini is a fried dumpling stuffed with piping hot mozzarella cheese and, and this case, spinach.  The fry is nice and light and doesn’t distract from a wonderful, cream spinach like inside.  The accompanying cuts of Prosciutto are of high quality.  They are perfectly moist but not too fatty or salty.

We follow this up with two pasta dishes: (1) Agnolotti – sunchoke filled pasta with brown butter, walnuts and rosemary and (2) Quadratti – gorgonzola filled pasta with savoy cabbage and truffles.   Both pastas (which are of the ravioli/tortellini genre) are of excellent construction (look at the 4 sides of the “quad” ratti.  Brilliant!).  They are sturdy enough not to leak filling, yet rolled thin so to provide each bite with loads of flavor.  The former pasta is my top choice between the two.  It’s a perfect feature of sweet and salt.  The gorgonzola pasta is darn good, but there is an ever-so-slight let down: it had been covered in truffle shavings which, sadly, provided minimal (almost non existent, actually) truffle flavor.  Nonetheless, I’m able to quickly overlook this otherwise grave mistake due the excellent quality of pasta that sits in a lemony, buttery sauce which, according to Elana is more like “cabbagey, cheetoh madness.”  I’m sure this is exactly what they had in mind.

For our main dish, Elana and I split braised veal shank Ossobuco with bone marrow and leeks.  This dish is superb.  With a gentle pull, the veal effortlessly falls off the bone and rests in a pool of burgundy, lightly salted broth.  The meat is both fatty and tender, with taste levels that are simply through the roof.  But the real treat, is found inside the bone, which is jam packed with the buttery, fatty, boogery goodness that is bone marrow.  Upon Elana making this discovery, we both shove the butt-ends of our forks to force out this glorious goop, and spread the remains on the meat.  L-I-V-I-N.

For a side, we also order Cauliflower, which has been toasted in oil, a light vinegar, and sprinkled with sea salt.  It is perfectly crunchy and lightly burnt. As is custom, Elana and I top of off our meal with some of the best Espresso in recent memory – just an absolute kick ass ying yang of bitter and smooth.  It is served with a complimentary, lemony marshmallow treat (as seen below).

Throughout the meal, A Voce’s service is quite good.  While it’s not the absolute soup to nuts flawless presentation of, say, Del Posto, A Voce has the requisite features of a top flight restaurant: a knowledgeable staff, a sommelier on site (who was quite helpful), and well timed meal arrivals (minus one or two lulls in refilling our wine).

The Bathrooms:

The bathrooms are a scene of tidy luxury – marbled sinks, upper quality disposable hand towels, and a generous reflective surface to re-set the part in your dome should it become disturbed while digging up tough to reach portions of bone marrow.  It gives you pretty much everything you need.

The Experience:

Heat – The Near Edgy Masterpiece

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Ever since I read Jim Lahey’s book, My Bread and baked many of the recipes, I’ve been a bit obsessed with Mr. Lahey. Nothing crazy – no stalkerish tendencies. Just a serious admiration for the man’s bread baking talent. I headed up to his restaurant Co. in Chelsea to sample his bread – and PIZZA – first hand.

On a scale of 1-1,000, can you guess how excited I was? Place your bets in the comments section.

The Scene:
Pushing away the velvet curtains at the front door reveals a delightfully warm, pizza-smelling atmosphere that fogs up the windows with bread-baking steam. All around me is friendly chatter – not too loud not too quiet. Perfect for either a friendly get together or a date.

The attentive hostess greets me with an ETS (Estimated Time of Seating) – about 30 minutes, and I take a seat at the bar to await a friend.

Caramel colored wood paneling graces the walls with an interjection of one mirrored panel leading to a window through which you can peep the wood burning oven. This same oven is projected on the wall above the tables like a movie screen – like one of those Yule Log DVDs. Customers have apparently asked to buy a copy of the recording, but it’s not for sale, as you can hear the owner cursing in the background if you listen closely. In my opinion, this only adds to its kitchy charm.

Sam and Dave are crooning on the sound system and I hum, “Hold on (pizza), I’m coming….” to myself as one of the “company people” (identifiable by their matching brown t-shirts) ambles up over to take our order. We select:

The Grub:

First things first: BEER. I’ve been dying to try Kelso beer ever since I started following them around on Twitter. Luckily, Co. happens to serve Kelso Nut Brown Lager, which we promptly ordered a growler of (growler is a new term for me and basically means a helluva big jug o’ beer). We were very pleased – it complemented everything we ordered, especially the Popeye pizza (more on that below). We easily polished off that growler.

Next up: The Cannellini Bean and the Chicken Liver Toasts.

I LOVE chicken liver. You might remember me mentioning this around Thanksgiving time. It’s a weird thing to love, I know, but I really do. Co.’s version did not disappoint: pure perfection, whipped to a frosting-like consistency while still offering that signature tangy taste. As an added bonus, the spread was very generously applied.

The cannelini beans were like a meat broth stew (minus the broth) – bean bolognese, if you will. And I did! And would do it again, please and thank you.


Pizzas:
We selected the Margherita and the Popeye pizzas.

The Margherita was a perfect blend of tomato, mozzarella and parmesan with large basil leaves resting on top. The crust was crispy, charred and moist all at the same time, and the mozzarella had flavor – actual flavor all its own! I dubbed it King Pizza of the night.

The Popeye (pecorino, gruyère, mozzarella, spinach, black pepper and garlic) was a study in delicious contradiction. The spinach, both crispy and tender, was a perfect balance to the tangy and gooey gruyere. For added fun, the spinach seemed to have been marinated in oil and garlic.

And they have sundaes! I enjoyed a vanilla and salted peanut topped with caramel sauce, cream and pomegranate seeds.

The Bathrooms:
I was happy to find the bathrooms as orderly and well-constructed as the pizza (yes, I know that’s a weird thing to say). Clean, modern and supplied with fun extras like C.O. Bigelow lemon-scented hand soap and ART (that’s a crab in the framed photo).

The Experience:
The Shawshank Redemption – The Happy Ending

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Elana, remember when we tried to cram Pizza, in all of its forms, into one “Pizza Month”…? Heck, not since  Apollo Creed’s choreographed entrance in Rocky 4 can I recall such an overestimation of one’s own capabilities.  And we all know how that ended.

But in fairness to us, we never really thought the idea was possible.  We just figured that it would be a cool idea to devote one month towards Pizza.  But since shifting our efforts into maintaining an Italian focused blog, there are now no limits as to the frequency for how often Pizza will be discussed.

And, in light of this, what better Pizza to feature than the legendary square-cut, cheese-beneath-sauce, Sicilian pie found at L & B Spumoni Gardens in Brooklyn; the first pan made pizza to be featured on the blog.  Never mind the fact that a dispute between myself and a fellow Italian over a parking spot distracted us a bit, we were dialed in.

From the look of it, the slice merely looks like focaccia bread with some “gravy” splattered on top, yet there is more than meets the eye to this little guy.  Underneath L & B’s thick tomato sauce is mozzarella cheese. Yes, cheese under sauce.  Combined with the pan cooked bread, each bite has a pillowy soft, inviting nature to it.  The pizza, ingredients wise, is not particularly mind blowing if one were to dissect the main players: the sauce packs a mediocre, pasty tang and the cheese does not taste much different than Polly-O.

Nonetheless, there is indeed a magic to it all.  Elana and I comment on its superior “mouthfeel” – you know, that hard-to-explain quality of certain foods and drink that seem to set it apart from the rest, like a Reeses peanut butter cup?  Well, this pie has it.  Anchored by it’s thick, yet slightly moist, pound cake-like crust, the L & B slice becomes more addictive with each bite.  And feel free to order seconds or thirds; despite the pie’s threatening look, it’s actually quite light and easy to take down.  Elana’s ordering a second slice without hesitation.  We are both significantly hooked.

Those expecting a charming ambiance: don’t.  The inside is nothing flashy.  Tables may endure a cycle of about 3-4 lunches before getting a wash down.  But it’s nothing offensive; and if you came here for the scene, you’re not in the right frame of mind.  L and B’s pizza is famous for a reason, and you’re missing out if you have yet to make it out there.

Movie equivalent – Top Gun

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Recently, I was lunching at Eataly with a group of colleagues. Actually, I just wanted to use “lunching” and “colleagues” in the same sentence.

I was hungrily devouring a pizza with the other members of a food photography class that I was taking. We had come to Eataly to do some on-site food photography. Come for the pictures, stay for the food – that kind of thing.

Readers of this blog know of the obsession John and I have for pizza, so I used this opportunity to sample Eataly’s version.

Eataly’s pizza menu offered the Neopolitan-style, wood fired, personal sized pizza characterized by a thin crust with a floppy center and a charred yet moist and chewy outer crust (or cornicione).

A member of our group suggested sharing a pizza. But I needed to research! For the blog! For our readers! For science! Also, I was hungry. So I politely responded, “I’ll be taking one down all by myself. But thanks for the offer!”

Besides, when I share food, I’m always mentally tallying the number of pieces that I have in relation to everyone else in an effort to be polite. It’s too much mental energy when I’m trying to eat. Plus, it usually leaves me hungry.

I selected the Verduretta, a traditional Margherita (tomato sauce and mozzarella) topped with roasted eggplant and red peppers.

The portion size was generous. I did not, in fact, end up taking the whole thing down by myself. Leopard-like black char spots graced the outer crust which sloped downwards to a very thin and flexible inner pizza. The tomato sauce was tangy and the strips of roasted eggplant provided a smokey and woodsy quality that had me wishing these veggies had been more generously applied.

While the eggplant scored high marks, the roasted peppers seemed just decorative accents as they were a more generic, from-the-can variety and didn’t add much flavor.

As for the mozzarella – the marshmallow-like dollops were an excellent consistency: they retained a good meltiness even upon cooling, and were never plastic-y or dry.

John would call this a “solid” pie, and I would agree. Technically and traditionally sound in crust and cooking method, yet lacking a bit in depth of flavor from its veggie accoutrements.

Overall Pizza-Eating Experience: Top Gun, The Well Working Formula

Bonus Section! I’ve you’ve read this far, you can see a few photo highlights from the Eataly tour:

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“As in, Cousin Brucie?” – I cannot tell you how many times I heard this when I told people Elana and I were checking out Cobble Hill’s new neighborhood Italian restaurant, Brucie, on 234 Court Street.  I’m pretty sure the iconic radio personality of the 1960’s and 70’s had little to do with the inspiration behind the restaurant’s name, yet one never knows.  After some light research, I did discover that Cousin Brucie was, indeed, born somewhere in Brooklyn.  Hmmm…

Well, if the joint was, in fact, named after Cousin Brucie, the similarities between the two entities are in name only.  As our server told us, the interior and the overall theme of the restaurant were predominantly the chef’s ideas.  And, kudos to the chef because the vibe of the restaurant is very well done.  It resembles a country deli, with an injection of cool.  A pleasant equilibrium of detail without overkill, Brucie rewards the design minded patron with copper bar tops, jar enclosed light bulbs, antique restaurant equipment, and derriere contoured bar stools.

The menu is artfully printed on a rectangular piece of stationary, and categorizes their large and small plates under the appropriate and clever headings “Biggie” and “Smalls,” respectively.  Big ups to Brucie here.  The menu changes every day from what we were told.

For our “smalls,” Elana and I order Rice Balls and Crostini with crimini mushrooms and truffle oil.  The rice ball is stuffed with their own homemade mozzarella and peas.  It has a perfectly crispy breaded crust, and is centrally positioned in a sea of tasty tomato sauce.  The sauce has a thicker than normal consistency to it, providing each bite with optimal conditions to playfully wade in marinara. The Crostini was of sizable portion – Two hefty hunks of bread splattered with a crimini puree, laced with generous amounts truffle oil and flavor (always a plus).

For our “biggies,” Elana selects the housemade tagliatelle with sweet corn, brussels sprouts and tomato butter.  It is topped with their homemade burrata (cut to Elana squealing with glee).  The burrata has a mildly salty taste, with a faintly sour, oozy mid section.  Props, Brucie.  Also, the brussels sprouts have it goin’ on.  They have a substantial yet flaky feel to them, being fried.  We love them.  As for the sauce and tagliatelle, the feathery noodles are appreciated, but we are not crazy about the sauce, which feels a bit dominated by tomatoes.

My goats milk ricotta tortelloni with cranberry brown butter is similarly ok. High marks are awarded for the creamy, rich ricotta filling, as well as the homemade tortelloni. But the sauce was not doing much for us.  It’s of a wonderful, runny consistency considering its thick ingredients, yet it’s a touch bland.  Nonetheless, I still managed to wipe my plate clean.  All of the dishes at Brucie are of very generous portion.

As for the bathrooms, Elana had this to say: “the farmhouse-modern decor of the seating area is echoed in the bathroom with poster art, and light switch and doorknob details. Dueling mirrors above the sink give you a look at both your good sides.”

The Verdict – Brucie’s environment kills it; a charming, original setting with detail, character, and…a store. Yes, one can even stop into Brucie’s to purchase canned San Marzano tomatoes, among other quality goods. The food has promise, yet some (not all) of the dishes we experienced fell short of matching its mouth watering presentation and menu description.

Movie equivalentMiami Vice

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Every summer, I tease my father with the possibility of turning our detached shore house garage into a beer hall/fun center…complete with arcade games, flat screen tv’s, and a full bar.  In my head, the end result is something worthy of Architectural Digest’s attention; where the collection of old fishing rods and surfboards fuse effortlessly with HDTV’s and high fives.  A visionary, I purport myself to be.

This last Saturday night, my delusions of garage-themed grandeur were truly humbled when I visited Roberta’s; a layout of semi-attached, dissimilar shed-like loft space churning out fun, hey-day rap tunes, and oh yeah, really awesome grub.  The interior is truly outrageous and raw. Coarse cement floors and walls, 70’s style wood paneled bathrooms, tatted-up crooked hat hipsters staffing the joint – all contributing to a scene of chaotic, yet innovative beauty.  Our one-hour wait for a table is thankfully shortcut by my super slick pal, Steve, who slides into a bar-top with three vacant stools which, just nanoseconds previously, had been accommodating other patrons.  A group of nearby bystanders appear upset with themselves for the lapse in surveillance.  But it’s BK… so no tempers flare.

We all peruse the menu, portions of which contain hilariously named offerings like “Cheeses Christ” and “Crispy Glover” – both are types of pizza, the latter of which… Elana orders.  Perhaps it was her density to do so.  I mean, her destiny.  Prior to ordering the pies, however, the trio orders some lardo, prosciutto and a separate dish of Gala Apples, mixed with honey, fennel and Burrata Cheese.  The lardo and proscuitto are cut to a perfect thickness I find; substantial enough to provide abundant taste and salt levels.  Both meats are, not surprisingly, fatty (the prosciutto is actually the most fatty I’ve ever had) yet have a delicate, milky quality.  This sensation is complimented by the apples, burrata, honey and fennel which, when altogether on one fork-full, deliver an ice-cream like taste.

Now, what we really came here for… PIZZA!  Roberta’s Pizza is produced within a metal, wood burning stove with a crooked, iron chimney sticking out from its top.  It’s not an achievement in art or sculpture by any means, like the oven at Keste, but it gets the job done. Very well, actually.  Each of our pies have the mark of a skilled Neapolitan pizzaiola: the outside of the pie has been blistered by the open flame while the inside has remained chewy, soft and elastic.  My margherita pie was a bit cheesier than most of its genre, with noticeable freshness supplied by the tomatoes and basil after one pierces through it’s crackling crust.

Our other two pies, the Cripsy Glover (featuring guanciale, taleggio cheese, onions and chili peppers) and the Good Girl (Kale and Sausage) were huge hits.  The Glover is wonderfully interesting, supplying a phased approach of satisfaction.  Its initial crunch is quickly overcome by its porky and, ultimately, fruity characteristics…which continue to evolve and intensify as one chews.  A hotboxing of the mouth, so to speak.  Meanwhile, the Good Girl, teams its sausage adorned pie with bitter, shriveled, oil-trapping kale leaves. Folding this all together between the friendly, cushy confines of the dough is a treat for the pizza enthusiast.  It is simply loaded with flavor.  It is difficult to deduce a winner between these three pies.

Roberta’s adds an attentive and accommodating wait staff (they were kind enough to call us a cab into Manhattan), a full bar (complete with $3 bud heavies) and perhaps the greatest arsenal of musical accompaniment for a meal I have yet to experience – 90’s Dr. Dre, Tribe, Kurtis Blow and the Sugar Hill Gang.  It is not uncommon to observe customers and staff members alike lip synching, foot tapping, or head bobbing.

The bathrooms are two individual, wood paneled stalls, with subway tiled walls, wooden toilet seats and, importantly, locks!  Nothing to complain about here.

The bottom line – Roberta’s maintains an incredibly festive, cleverly divey atmosphere while putting out talented, versatile fare.  It’s reputation as one of the heavier hitters in the artisan pizza realm is surely deserved, however a dining experience within this Garage of Glory leaves one with the lasting impression that there is way more under the hood at this joint than just pizza.

Overall experience – Heat

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